CAST: Brad Pitt, Joey King, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Brian Tyree Henry, Andrew Koji, Hiroyuki Sanada, Michael Shannon, Bad Bunny, Sandra Bullock, Zazie Beetz, Logan Lerman, Karen Fukuhara, Masi Oka, Pasha D. Lychnikoff, Miraj Grbić
RUNNING TIME: 126 mins
BASICALLY…: An assassin (Pitt) boards a bullet train in Japan, where he runs into several other assassins…
NOW FOR THE REVIEW…
Bullet Train is an extremely apt name for this movie, for not only is it set almost entirely on the notoriously fast Japanese transport, but it moves along at such supersonic speed that it could practically break the sound barrier. Unlike an actual bullet train, however, director David Leitch’s action-comedy – based on Kōtarō Isaka’s thriller novel – isn’t the smoothest of rides, as it crams in so much plot and character that it can be hard to keep track of what’s going on, and who it’s happening to, until it eventually (and, in the most non-spoilery way possible, literally) goes off the rails.
That being said, Bullet Train isn’t a totally wasted journey, for as convoluted and overwritten as it may be, it’s still mostly entertaining, largely thanks to some fun performances, a decent sense of humour, and more than a few fight sequences which are physically engaging.
The film begins in Tokyo, Japan as Ladybug (Brad Pitt), a trained assassin who believes himself to be rather unlucky with every job that comes his way, boards a bullet train at the behest of his handler, Maria (a mostly heard-but-not-seen Sandra Bullock). She has given him the incredibly easy task of obtaining a suitcase stashed onboard, which at first goes swiftly but then, of course, goes south when he encounters several other killers on the same train – including duo hitmen Tangerine (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) and Lemon (Brian Tyree Henry), a young psychopath known as The Prince (Joey King), the vengeful Yuichi Kimura (Andrew Koji) and his former Yakuza father (Hiroyuki Sanada), and enraged Mexican assassin The Wolf (Bad Bunny) – who all, in some way, link to a ruthless criminal organisation led by the feared White Death (Michael Shannon). Now, an increasingly baffled Ladybug must find a way to get off the train alive, which given his wavering luck is easier said than done.
As stated earlier, Bullet Train acquires itself an extremely fast pace which speeds through crucial plot developments, character introductions, and context-providing paragraphs of exposition. It’s the kind of pacing that does leave you bewildered at first, because you’re not entirely sure which of its many plots you’re supposed to be focusing on the most, and they overlap so much that you can practically feel them getting tangled up together. Sometimes, the movie will also cut back to several moments earlier, to show a different perspective to earlier scenes, before then cutting back to the present as though it expects you to have fully caught up by that point. It can be confusing to piece together, and even when the movie does eventually settle down (to a point) with its frequent rapid-fire pacing, you barely feel like you’ve spent enough time with most of these characters to really get a feel for what kind of people they actually are. Instead, you’re still trying to piece together the overly kinetic storytelling before you’ve even begun to identify with these many, many characters who all struggle to share the same space as one another.
I’ve seen some critics compare this movie to Pulp Fiction, which makes sense given the non-linear narratives and dialogue that’s trying very hard to be cool, but personally I would say this is much more in the vein of Magnolia, if it were directed by Guy Ritchie. Similar to Paul Thomas Anderson’s epic drama, Bullet Train features an ensemble cast of formidable character actors, carries many themes surrounding fate and random chance, and feels a lot longer than it perhaps ought to be (plus, Brad Pitt does have similar hair length to Tom Cruise in that movie). However, it also carries that Guy Ritchie attitude where characters fling quick-witted insults back and forth with each other (often in thick Cock-er-ney accents), swap quirky monologues about stuff like Thomas the Tank Engine, and have title cards with their names displayed whenever they’re formally introduced to the audience. Leitch clearly approaches this mish-mash of styles with a hefty sense of humour, which does carry a lot of this film’s wild energy, but often it will feel like too much all at once, with this colourful cast of characters and their respective storylines playing second banana to the irreverent style, which despite some well-choreographed stunt work – it would have to be, given that Leitch is a former stunt co-ordinator himself – can get so ridiculous and cartoonish at times, that it’s almost a surprise that this movie also doesn’t climax with frogs falling from the sky.
While it’s not as smooth a ride as one might hope, especially with its overwhelming pace and style, Bullet Train has just about enough entertainment value to keep things from getting too far off track, and part of that comes from how much fun some of the actors can be here. Brad Pitt, a somewhat underappreciated comic actor, gets quite a few laughs playing a reluctant hero who’s constantly baffled by most things he comes across, from sudden adversaries to poisonous snakes that have been let loose; Aaron Taylor-Johnson and Brian Tyree Henry have really good chemistry together, selling their very Ritchie-esque back-and-forths with tons of charisma and darkly funny likeability; and there’s a characteristically sinister late appearance from Michael Shannon who, in perhaps a more straightforward movie, has the potential to be a really outstanding villain. Most of these actors, no matter how lengthy their screen time, do good enough work to keep the momentum from sinking too deep, not to mention a couple of surprise cameos which might get some viewers more interested, especially if they saw and enjoyed The Lost City (which Pitt also cameoed in).
It’s kind of a mess, but it’s an entertaining mess, one where you can have a decent amount of fun trying to piece together, with people who are interesting enough to spend this journey with. Sure, you might be overwhelmed by how fast it speeds along, and how it’s probably not as smart or even as funny as it thinks, but if you’re willing to tolerate that type of kinetic energy, then Bullet Train might just be the one you need to take.
SO, TO SUM UP…
Bullet Train is a messy action-comedy that speeds by with such a kinetic pace and tone that it can be difficult to piece together all the convoluted plots and characters, but it contains enough entertaining performances, a decent sense of humour, and some enjoyably mindless action sequences to make it a worthwhile trip.